Because she’s older and the teacher, she’s right and I’m not.
Sandra Cisneros, “Eleven”
The field experience students complete as part of my foundations of education course has this semester blended well with their reading Chris Emdin’s For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too.
As we have discussed both during class sessions, students have been drawn to witnessing and reading as well as thinking about how teachers view and respond to their students.
Although these students have virtually no background in formal education, they have been very perceptive about the inordinate, and distracting, pressures on teachers to cover the curriculum (standards) and prepare students for testing—notably while observing and tutoring at a local majority-minority elementary school.
High student/teacher ratios have also been identified as making good classroom practice nearly impossible.
Running through our discussions has been a concern about how teachers treat students (often more harshly than my students anticipated or endorsed) and about the pervasive deficit perspective throughout the school.
Observing and tutoring in special needs classes and among Latinx students needing to acquire English have intensified how my students have responded to their field placement and their recognition of the myriad factors that impact negatively formal education.
Often unspoken, but what teachers and students share in far too many schools is a “no excuses” imperative that demands teachers perform well (even miraculously) despite being placed in circumstances that work against their efforts and that demands students somehow leave the pressures and inequities of their lives in order to excel at academics being imposed on them.
Teresa Watanabe’s Can a child who starts kindergarten with few reading or math skills catch up? is a snapshot of what my students have witnessed and what Emdin’s work challenges.
Responding to that article, Stephen Krashen, Professor Emeritus at the University of Southern California, has identified the problem that my students have observed:
But there is no evidence that tougher standards lead to more learning, and no evidence showing that the Common Core standards are better at preparing children for college and career than other standards or than no standards….
Forcing young children to study flashcards in the car and spell words during family outings in order to “master” 100 words is turning kindergarten into kindergrind. Children who develop a love of reading will master thousands of words, without suffering.
Although political leaders and the public often view the authoritarian classroom where teachers are charged with keeping order and demanding that students learn standards and content about which they have no choice or input as the solution, it is now far past time to recognize that this is the problem with formal schooling.
Of course, what we teach is important at every level of education, and that what is becoming even more important for our democracy as we are confronted with a new post-truth media and politics.
That what needs to be the sort of truth that empowers a free people.
That what also needs to include a clear focus on the civility of learning and wrestling with ideas since our post-truth media and politics are increasing and justifying the demanding and nasty tone that is already a problem in many schools.
However, the what must remain secondary to the who—who we teach is what makes teaching an essential calling grounded in the dignity of both teachers and their students.
And the what can never be well taught or learned unless we attend to the conditions of teaching/learning and living among our teachers and students.
The authoritarian classroom, deficit thinking, “no excuses” ideologies and practices—these are corrosive elements for teaching, learning, and democracy as well as liberty.
The very long era of standardized testing and the more recent and relatively shorter era of accountability and standards have inflicted immeasurable harm on teachers and students.
And even as educator autonomy and professionalism become daily further eroded, we are morally obligated to call for and remain grounded in our role as teachers of students.
The who of teaching and learning must always come before the what.
Critical Media Literacy and Fake News in Post-Truth America
Co-editors P.L. Thomas and Christian Z. Goering
Critical Media Literacies and Youth series, Sense Publishers
Series Editor, William Reynolds
In the fall of 2016, just after the U.S. elected Donald Trump president, a black female first-year student submitted an essay on the prospects for Trump’s presidency. The course is a first-year writing seminar focusing on James Baldwin in the context of #BlackLivesMatter; therefore, throughout the course, students have been asked to critically investigate race, racism, gender, sexism, and all types of bias related to the U.S.—through the writing of Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Roxane Gay, Teju Cole, and Arundhati Roy, among others.
The student’s discussion of Trump’s policies, however, were hyperlinked to Trump’s campaign website. Discussing the draft with the student revealed that the current post-truth America is a significant issue among youth who seem unable to distinguish between facts and so-called fake news.
To blame youth for this lack of critical media literacy seems misguided since the mainstream media itself plays a significant role in misinforming the public. For example, as a subset of the wider media, edujournalism represents a default lack of critical perspective among journalists.
Claims by mainstream media are impressive:
Education Week is the best independent, unbiased source for news and information on pre-K-12 education. With an average of 42 stories posted each weekday on edweek.org, there is always a news, multimedia, or opinion piece to keep you up-to-date on post-election changes in policy, and to help you become a better practitioner and subject matter expert.
The reality is much different. When journalists at Education Week were challenged about their lack of critical coverage of NCTQ, Juana Summers Tweeted, “I’m not sure it’s my place to say whether the study is credible.”
In other words, mainstream media are dedicated to press-release journalism and maintaining a “both sides” stance that avoids making informed decisions about any claims from their sources—including the campaign of Trump.
This volume, then, seeks contributions that address, but are not limited to, the following in the context of teaching and reaching youth in the U.S. about critical media literacy:
- Unpacking the lack of critical perspectives in mainstream media.
- Examining “post-truth” America.
- Confronting issues of race, racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia as related to the media.
- Exploring the promises of the New Media as a haven for truth.
Contributions should seek ways to couch chapters in practical aspects of teaching and reaching youth in the U.S., but can reach beyond the traditional classroom into youth culture as that intersects with critical media literacy.
Send a tentative title, author information, and 100-word abstract of the proposed chapter as a Word file (use your name to label the file, please). Make sure your abstract clearly shows how the proposed chapter addresses the focus of the volume—critical media literacy, fake news, and post-truth U.S. as related to youth.
Timeline, etc., TBD
Critical Media Literacies and Youth series, Sense Publishers
Series Editor, William Reynolds
The original zombie narrative has been re-created and distorted in contemporary U.S. pop culture, as
So what were zombies, originally? The answer lies in the Caribbean. They weren’t endlessly-reproducing, flesh-eating ghouls. Instead, the zombie was the somewhat tragic figure of a human being maintained in a catatonic state – a soulless body – and forced to labour for whoever cast the spell over him or her. In other words, the zombie is – or was – a slave. I always find it troubling that, somewhere along the line, we forgot or refused to acknowledge this and have replaced the suffering slave with the figure of a mindless carnivore – one that reproduces, virus-like, with a bite.
While there is some nuance and variety among the many ways in which U.S. pop culture have manipulated the zombie narrative, central to almost all of those is the zombie as relentless consumer who has risen from the dead and resists being killed permanently.
In that context, school choice is zombie politics because the ideology will not die and its many versions (vouchers, tuition tax credits, charter schools) are destructive.
A few decades ago, school choice advocacy depended on the appeal of the ideology itself since choice is idealized and fetishized in the U.S.
Once school choice policy began to be implemented, and then over the past 2-3 decades as evidence from how choice has not achieved the promises made, school choice advocacy has depended on constantly shifting the type of choice and the promises.
At the center of the school choice debate is a failure in the U.S. to appreciate the importance of the Commons, how publicly funded institutions are necessary for the free market to work (both economically and ethically).
For example, publicly funded roads and highways are powerful and essential for commerce in the U.S. Many resist toll roads in the U.S., and certainly, the entire economy and way of life in the U.S. would be destroyed if we left roads and highways to the whims of the Invisible Hand.
Two facts remain important now as the election of Donald Trump and the apparent choice for Secretary of Education suggest that the zombie politics of school choice has been rejuvenated:
- The overwhelming evidence for all aspects of school choice show little differences when compared to traditional public schools; some aspects can certainly be categorized as harmful, and any so-called positives are erased when those gains are explained—attrition, comparing apples and oranges, selectivity, inability to scale, etc.
- Idealizing parental choice fails to step back to the bedrock promise of publicly funded institutions: insuring that choice isn’t necessary.
Just as a blow to the head and brain can kill permanently the zombie, evidence and truth should eradicate the zombie politics of school choice. However, Trumplandia is a post-truth country.
None the less, the truth is our only real option so below is a reader to combat the zombie politics of school choice:
Research-Based Options for Education Policymaking – 2016 Collection, William J. Mathis (NEPC)
School Finance 101, Bruce Baker
School Vouchers Are Not a Cure For Segregation: Part I , Jersey Jazzman
Here are links to all five parts of the series:
Recent research on statewide voucher programs in Louisiana and Indiana has found that public school students that received vouchers to attend private schools subsequently scored lower on reading and math tests compared to similar students that remained in public schools. The magnitudes of the negative impacts were large. These studies used rigorous research designs that allow for strong causal conclusions. And they showed that the results were not explained by the particular tests that were used or the possibility that students receiving vouchers transferred out of above-average public schools.
Another explanation is that our historical understanding of the superior performance of private schools is no longer accurate. Since the nineties, public schools have been under heavy pressure to improve test scores. Private schools were exempt from these accountability requirements. A recent study showed that public schools closed the score gap with private schools. That study did not look specifically at Louisiana and Indiana, but trends in scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress for public school students in those states are similar to national trends.
In education as in medicine, ‘first, do no harm’ is a powerful guiding principle. A case to use taxpayer funds to send children of low-income parents to private schools is based on an expectation that the outcome will be positive. These recent findings point in the other direction. More needs to be known about long-term outcomes from these recently implemented voucher programs to make the case that they are a good investment of public funds. As well, we need to know if private schools would up their game in a scenario in which their performance with voucher students is reported publicly and subject to both regulatory and market accountability.
Regardless of motives, the charter initiatives in Oakland and Los Angeles together signal a significant watershed in the growth of a statewide movement that was birthed by California’s Charter Schools Act of 1992 to create classroom laboratories that might develop the dynamic new curricula and teaching methods needed to reinvigorate schools that were failing the state’s most underserved and disadvantaged children.
How that modest experiment in fixing neighborhood public schools could morph in less than 25 years into the replacement of public schools with an unproven parallel system of privately run, taxpayer-funded academies is only half the story of California’s education wars that will be examined in this series, much of which is based on conversations with both sides of the charter school debate. Over the next few days Capital & Main will also look at:
- The influence wielded by libertarian philanthropists who bankroll the 50-50 takeovers.
- How charter schools spend less time and money on students with learning disabilities.
- The lack of charter school transparency and accountability.
- How charter expansion is pushing Oakland’s public school district toward a fateful tipping point.
- The success of less radical yet more effective reforms that get scant media coverage.
- Nine solution takeaways for struggling schools.
(from Failing the Test: A New Series Examines Charter Schools, Bill Raden)
Charters and Access: Here is Evidence, Julian Vasquez Helig
No, Eva, You Can’t Do Whatever You Want, Jersey Jazzman
from Engel, M. (2000). The struggle for control of public education: Market ideology vs. democratic values. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
[I]t is nothing short of disastrous that more than ever before, one antidemocratic system of ideas—market ideology—almost exclusively defines the terms of educational politics and charts the path of education reform
…[I]deology is important in understanding educational change….Ideology is nonetheless often overlooked or at best misapplied by mainstream social scientists as a factor in politics. This is due in part to the dominance of quantitative methodologies in political science, which leads to the trivialization of the concept into conveniently measurable but irrelevant labels….Market ideology has triumphed over democratic values not because of its superiority as a theory of society but in part because in a capitalist system it has an inherent advantage. (pp. 3, 8-9)
from Callahan, R. E. (1962). Education and the cult of efficiency: A study of the social forces that have shaped the administration of the public schools. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
For while schools everywhere reflect to some extent the culture of which they are a part and respond to forces within that culture, the American public schools, because of the nature of their pattern of organization, support, and control, were especially vulnerable and responded quickly to the strongest social forces. . . .The business influence was exerted upon education in several ways: through newspapers, journals, and books; through speeches at educational meetings; and, more directly, through actions of school boards. It was exerted by laymen, by professional journalists, by businessmen or industrialists either individually or in groups. . ., and finally by educators themselves. Whatever its source, the influence was exerted in the form of suggestions or demands that the schools be organized and operated in a more businesslike way and that more emphasis by placed upon a practical and immediately useful education….
The tragedy itself was fourfold: that educational questions were subordinated to business considerations; that administrators were produced who were not, in any true sense, educators; that a scientific label was put on some very unscientific and dubious methods and practices; and that an anti-intellectual climate, already prevalent, was strengthened. (pp. 1, 5-6, 246)
The election of Barack Obama prompted a rash claim that the U.S. was officially post-racial. As a cruel commentary on that misinterpretation of the first black president, the era of Donald Trump has coincided with the Oxford Dictionary naming “post-truth” the word of the year.
Part of being “post-truth” includes that which shall not be named.
For example, “[a]n Alabama police officer has been fired for sharing racist memes, including one about Michelle Obama,” reports Lindsey Bever of the Washington Post. But the police department’s explanation for the firing is important to analyze:
Bryant, the city manager, said statements that are “deemed to be biased or racially insensitive or derogatory” can affect the community’s trust in the police department and, when that happens, “we have to take action to correct it.”
Not racist, not racism, but “racially insensitive.”
While Bever does use “racist” in the lede, later she explains:
Since Donald Trump was elected president, a wave of racially and religiously motivated acts of intimidation, violence and harassment have swept across the country — from a middle school in Michigan and a high school in Pennsylvanian to universities in Texas and elsewhere.
Not a wave of racism, but “racially motivated acts.”
And while this article and the incidences Bever details are mostly about how racists and racism have been confronted and with consequences (multiple firings of public officials), the piece still reflects the tendency in the U.S. for mainstream media to avoid or tiptoe around directly naming racists and racism.
Tressie McMillan Cottom, Ph.D., an assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University and faculty associate with Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, explains in a detailed blog post:
I said over two years ago that media style guides precluded major newspapers from calling something racist.
Then I asked around and professional media people told me that there isn’t a style convention on this matter so much as an informal culture. The general rule, I was told, is to never call anything racist and certainly to never call anyone racist. At best, they might quote someone calling something or someone racist.
The implication is that there is no such thing as objectively racist. Racism, according to many mainstream media producers and gatekeepers, can only be subjective.
While, again, Bever’s journalism is relatively bold in this context identified by Cottom, the authority figure in the article represents well a fundamental problem in the U.S. with naming racists and racism.
For example, in 2014, when high school students dressed in black face for intramural football, the principal reacted as follows:
A group of seniors in Sullivan, Missouri was criticized after donning blackface for an intramural football game, which their principal said fueled a misunderstanding, the Riverfront Times reported.
“I thought, ‘Oh, they don’t mean anything by it. Just let it go. No one thinks anything of it,’” Sullivan High School principal Jennifer Schmidt. “I didn’t think anyone did. Evidently, someone did.”
Schmidt said the 12 seniors painted their faces black on Nov. 5 as part of a charity “powder-puff” football game organized by the junior class. According to her, the face paint was intended to be a parody of the football team’s habit of wearing eye-black on their own faces.
Broadly, then, although in the U.S. there is lip service given to the importance of a free press in a democracy, the real problem is that there is no critical free press—one that honors a careless “both sides” and “press release” journalism over offering the public informed stances.
In the prelude to the era of Trumplandia, we are now faced with how the lack of a critical free press either allowed or created Trump and how the rise of a critical free press could suppress the danger inherent in Trump’s tenure as president and turn the tide against bigotry.
A vivid example of the dangers ofthe traditionally passive mainstream media is the coverage of Trump considering former DC chancellor Michelle Rhee for Secretary of Education; for example, Andrew Ujifusa in Education Week:
Trump’s search for education secretary appears to be crossing party lines. Rhee, who has identified as a Democrat throughout her career, is a strong supporter of school choice (including vouchers), which appears to be the top K-12 priority for Trump. She also rose to prominence for how she handled teachers and teacher evaluations during her tenure in the District of Columbia, which lasted from 2007 to 2010. In 2010, she left the nation’s capital and founded StudentsFirst, an advocacy group that pushes for choice, reforms to labor policies often unfriendly to teachers’ unions, and data-based school accountability. She stepped down as the leader of StudentsFirst in 2014.
Framed as crossing party lines, and then detailing in Wikipedia fashion Rhee’s professional resume, this coverage ignores Rhee’s lack of experience in education (a Teach For America corp member) as well as her tenure in DC that was either significantly mismanaged or outright criminal .
Even more telling is Ujifusa’s use of the standard mainstream journalism “both sides” reduction of all issues—some will applaud Rhee and some will not. Of course, no effort is made to make an informed recognition that Rhee is, like Trump, so tarnished in her career that she is unsuited for public service.
Those in positions of authority and the mainstream media who report on them are both trapped in maintaining and creating a safe space throughout the U.S. to protect racism, white privilege, and sexism/misogyny from being named. As Cottom includes about this phenomenon:
The most cited and widely recognized [research] is Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s theory of colorblind racism in which there is racism but no racists….
Media had, at some point, produced a culture that normalized using euphemisms for racism and racists.
And so, in Trumplandia, not only is truth sacrificed, but also is any semblance of expertise, credibility, or ethics.
The consequence of that approach is Trump himself and now the government he has the power to build.
The only antidote to perpetuating bigotry is to name it—including especially by a critical free press that could be a powerful force for a free people.
 Omitting as well that Rhee’s husband, Kevin Johnson, is also a seriously tarnished public official.
“All we gotta do is be brave
And be kind”
“Baby, We’ll Be Fine,” The National
…the world is gone daft with this nonsense.
John Proctor, The Crucible, Arthur Miller
In a keynote address at the 1960 National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) annual convention, former NCTE president Lou LaBrant asserted:
Every teacher of English exercises some rights, no matter how dictatorial the system under which [she/]he works; and every teacher carries out some responsibilities. But today we have a considerable movement in this country to curtail certain freedom—rights—of the classroom teacher, and those rights are the matter of this discussion. (p. 379)
Published as The Rights and Responsibilities of the Teacher of English in the September 1961 English Journal, this characteristic call to action from LaBrant resonates in 2016 as English teachers prepare to gather in Atlanta, Georgia for #NCTE16 with the increasingly important theme of Faces of Advocacy.
Fifty-five years ago, LaBrant advocated for teaching:
Teaching, unlike the making of a car, is primarily a thought process. A [hu]man may work on an assembly line, turning a special kind of bolt day after day, and succeed as a bolt-turner….But the teacher is something quite different from the [hu]man who turns a bolt, because the student is not like a car. Teaching is a matter of changing the mind of the student, of using that magic by which the thinking of one so bears on the thinking of another that new understanding and new mental activity begin. Obviously, the degree to which this is reduced to a mechanical procedure affects the results. (p. 380)
Most practicing teachers today work within and against political and bureaucratic forces that “[reduce teaching] to a mechanical procedure.”
And even more disturbing is LaBrant’s warning:
What I am trying to say here is that the teacher who is not thinking, testing, experimenting, and exploring the world of thought with which [she/]he deals and the very materials with which [she/]he works, that teacher is a robot [her/]himself. But we cannot expect a teacher to continue the attempt to find better means or to invent new approaches unless [she/]he knows [she/]he will have freedom to use [her/]his results. Without this freedom we must expect either a static teacher or a frustrated one. I have seen both: the dull, hopeless, discouraged teacher, and the angry, blocked, unhappy individual. (p. 380)
At mid-twentieth century, LaBrant spoke against the all-too-familiar “bad” teacher myth used in contemporary calls for accountability:
Repeatedly when capable teachers ask for freedom, someone points out that we have many lazy teachers, stupid teachers unable to think and choose, ignorant teachers; in short, bad teachers who need control. We do have some, but we encourage others to be bad. Even the weak teacher does better when [she/]he has to face [her/]his own decisions, and when [she/]he supports that decision. (p. 383)
The de-professionalizing of all teachers, then, is not something new, but a historical fact of being a teacher. However, LaBrant confronted the culpability among educators themselves:
One reason so many of us do not have our rights is that we have not earned them. The teacher who is free to decide when and how to teach language structure has an obligation to master [her/]his grammar, to analyze the problems of writing, and to study their relations to structure….But [her/]his right to choose comes only when [she/]he has read and considered methods other than [her/]his own. [She/]He has no right to choose methods or materials which research has proved ineffective….There is little point in asking for a right without preparation for its use. (p. 390)
“Throughout our country today we have great pressure to improve our schools,” lamented LaBrant. “By far too much of that pressure tends toward a uniformity, a conformity, a lock-step which precludes the very excellence we claim to desire”:
There is little consideration of the teacher as a catalyst, a changing, growing personality. Only a teacher who thinks about [her/]his work can think in class; only a thinking teacher can stimulate as they should be stimulated the minds with which [she/]he works. Freedom of any sort is a precious thing; but freedom to be our best, in the sense of our highest, is not only our right but our moral responsibility. “They”—the public, the administrators, the critics—have no right to take freedom from us, the teachers; but freedom is not something one wins and then possesses; freedom is something we rewin every day, as much a quality of ourselves as it is a concession from others. (pp. 390-391)
The Rights and Responsibilities of the Teacher of English Redux
“Evil settles into everyday life when people are unable or unwilling to recognize it,” writes Teju Cole in the wake of Donald Trump being elected president of the U.S. “It makes its home among us when we are keen to minimize it or describe it as something else.”
LaBrant wrote about the field of teaching English throughout the 1940s and 1950s with the power—both for evil and for good—of language forefront of her concerns:
Misuse of language, as Hitler demonstrated, is a terrible thing; we teachers of English can at the very least teach our students that language is a tool of thought, a tool which can be sharp and keen, but is easily blunted. (“The Individual and His Writing,” 1950, p. 265)
So we teachers of English/ELA—and all educators—sit in 2016 confronted with a “[m]isuse of language” that has given rise to a presidency built on racism, sexism, and xenophobia; therefore, as during LaBrant’s career, we teachers of English/ELA must embrace the most pressing responsibilities.
But driving Trump’s and his supporters’ bigotry has been a powerful corruption of language: blatant lies, denials of those lies, and the ugliest of coded language. In short, bullying has rewarded a political leader with the highest office in a free society.
Parody of Trump’s misuse of language cannot be taken lightly, but that misuse has real consequences on the lives of vulnerable and marginalized people, including children in the classrooms of teachers across the U.S.
Immediately, then, teachers must admit “that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces” (Kincheloe, 2005).
In other words, although teachers are historically and currently de-professionalized by being told not to be political, as LaBrant argued, educators cannot reinforce that mantra by calling for politics-free zones in our classrooms and in our professional spaces.
Calling for no politics is a political act of silencing that brazenly takes a masked political stand in favor of the status quo.
Teaching and learning are unavoidably “politically contested spaces,” but they are unavoidably ethically contested spaces as well.
Language is a human behavior that allows us to wrestle with and find our moral grounding; and thus, those teaching literacy have a profoundly ethical mission to work toward the Right, Good, and Decent—in the act of teaching but also as a personal model.
As philosopher Aaron Simmons argues:
It matters that we demonstrate critical thinking even while others assume that shouting louder is tantamount to evidential refutation. It matters that we think well when it seems hard to think anything at all. It matters that we care about truth because only then can lies and bullshit still be categories to avoid.
The naive stance of neutrality can no longer be who teachers are because, as I noted above, to be neutral is to support the status quo, and in the U.S., the status quo is a cancer that left untreated promises to kill us all.
As Lucas Jacob argues directly:
Calling a politician out for Islamophobia, xenophobia, racism, and misogyny is not a matter of exerting undue influence by favoring one political party over another; nor is it a matter of disrespecting the presidency. Naming Mr. Trump’s hate speech as such is, rather, a moral imperative for supporting the missions of K-12 schools, in which Islamophobic, xenophobic, racist, and misogynist words and actions are punishable offenses that can (and must) be treated as being beyond the pale.
“It goes without saying, then, that language is also a political instrument, means, and proof of power,” James Baldwin wrote in 1979 on Black English. “It is the most vivid and crucial key to identify: It reveals the private identity, and connects one with, or divorces one from, the larger, public, or communal identity.”
Just as LaBrant linked language and power, Baldwin extended that dynamic to include race—and called for using that power in the name of community instead of divisiveness.
The word “critical,” now, has taken on exponential layers of meaning.
We are in critical times, and thus, as Kincheloe explains about the political and ethical responsibilities of being critical educator who seeks for students critical literacy:
Recognition of these educational politics suggests that teachers take a position and make it understandable to their students. They do not, however, have the right to impose these positions on their students [emphasis in original]….
To refuse to name the forces that produce human suffering and exploitation is to take a position that supports oppression and powers that perpetuate it. The argument that any position opposing the actions of dominant power wielders is problematic. It is tantamount to saying that one who admits her oppositional political sentiments and makes them known to students is guilty of indoctrination, while one who hides her consent to dominant power and the status quo it has produced from her students is operating in an objective and neutral manner. Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom. (p. 11)
In its simple form, to call a lie, a lie; to name racism, racism; to reject hate as hate—these are the undeniable responsibilities of teachers, especially teachers of English/ELA.
To say “I’m neutral” in the face of a lie is to lie.
To say “I’m neutral” in the face of racism is racism, in the face of sexism is sexism, in the face of xenophobia is xenophobia.
To divorce the act of teaching from the world within which it resides is to abdicate the greatest potential of teaching and learning: to change the human experience from dark to light.
If we shun our responsibilities as teachers in 2016, we are turning our backs to the ugliest realities faced by Baldwin nearly forty years ago:
The brutal truth is that the bulk of white people in American never had any interest in educating black people, except as this could serve white purposes. It is not the black child’s language that is in question, it is not his language that is despised: It is his experience. A child cannot be taught by anyone who despises him, and a child cannot afford to be fooled. A child cannot be taught by anyone whose demand, essentially, is that the child repudiate his experience, and all that gives him sustenance, and enter a limbo in which he will no longer be black, and in which he knows that he can never become white. Black people have lost too many black children that way.
And, after all, finally, in a country with standards so untrustworthy, a country that makes heroes of so many criminal mediocrities, a country unable to face why so many of the nonwhite are in prison, or on the needle, or standing, futureless, in the streets–it may very well be that both the child, and his elder, have concluded that they have nothing whatever to learn from the people of a country that has managed to learn so little.
Writing two decades before her NCTE keynote examined above, LaBrant made a foundational request: “For these reasons my first request of every American teacher of English is that [she/]he teach in [her/]his classroom this honest use of language and an understanding of its relation to life” (p. 206).
And about “this honest use of language,” there are only two options—although remaining neutral is not one of them.
A comment posted on my recent blog, Verboden!: Autonomy and Critical Thinking in Education, deserves a careful reply:
So what do I do? I want to teach practical skills and meaningful texts. I am instead faced with 50 year old texts in the book room, a list of goals and targets (fewer than 10% failures, increased graduation rates by more than 10%, 40 standards with subets) and the fear of retribution and firing if I stray too far from the mandated curriculum. I just want to teach students to trust the power of their voices when my own voice is silenced by bureaucracy and mandates, meetings and condescending professional development that adds another target (5 phone calls home per week). I read and believe your words, but what do I do? How do I change the world? One student at a time? Another 12 hour day?
Let me offer first some context.
Although I am a tenured full professor, I taught public high school English for 18 years in a right-to-work (non-union) state, and have witnessed the powerlessness of being a teacher in that state through my role in teacher education for these on-going past 15 years.
Yes, K-12 teachers nationally are de-professionalized more and more each day, and throughout the South, where non-union states dominate, teachers are even more silenced and powerless.
However, I do believe there are many ways teachers can claim and expand their professionalism.
Broadly, teachers must resist at all costs fatalism, a call by Paulo Freire I believe is foundational to claiming educators’ professionalism.
Now, then, let me address “So what do I do?”:
- Take stock of how much of your professional and personal energy is being spent on being a professional and how much is drained by being a martyr—and then stop being a martyr. Especially for K-12 teachers, I advocate the Henry David Thoreau dictum about ours is to do something of value, but never to do everything. Too often, teachers are compelled to martyrdom, which erases all of our energy and is a cancer on our professionalism. Every teacher must take stock of her/his professional practices, and eliminate those that are time and energy draining with little to no positive instructional outcomes. For example, marking extensively on student work, and then not requiring students to respond in some substantive way to those comments is an act of martyrdom—a waste of professional time that produces an artifact of your spending time, but doesn’t benefit either you or your students.
- Identify and evaluate a very detailed and specific list of those obligations over which you have no control and those aspects of your teaching over which you do have control. This is a useful exercise for individual teachers, but it is even more powerful if conducted as a department or grade-level team. For example, in a graduate course once, when I rejected teachers giving spelling tests, a teacher challenged my stance because, as she explained, “I have to give a spelling grade on the report card!” I asked if any mandates existed for how she determined that grade, exposing that she did have autonomy over the how, and thus, we discussed pulling spelling grades from original student writing. To often, I fear, due to understandable feelings of fatalism, we teachers think we are powerless when we in fact have options. A detailed inventory is an effective way to make these distinctions real.
- Forefront in your day and planning those aspects over which you have power, and then determine professional strategies for advocating change in those obligations over which you have no current power. Daily, make as your first priority your empowering work as a teacher; do that over which you have control first and give your professional self that positive daily inoculation. Designate brief blocks of time for your compliance to mandates, and stick to that schedule. And then, waste no time fretting about those things over which you have no control.
- Brainstorm with colleagues more authentic ways to comply with inauthentic mandates. Teachers, I believe, can attack those things about which we have no control—such as standards and high-stakes testing—through stepping back from the mandates and asking if there are alternatives to how to comply. One excellent example is resisting making test-based writing the entire writing curriculum, and instead, making prompt-writing one of the ways in which we teach writing; in other words, embedding prompted, test-based writing late in a more authentic writing program so that we do prepare students for the tests, but also remain true to authentic writing and student voice/autonomy. Also, when mandates are unpacked by a department or grade level team, re-imagined by the department/grade level, and then implemented in ways endorsed by the practitioners, these mandates become tools of professionals instead of de-professionalizing teachers.
- Cultivate communities of empowerment and advocacy for expanding your professional autonomy. Teachers have historically and are currently often victims of the divide-and-conquer approach to management. The antidote to that is community—and for teachers, even more important is professional community. Start close and move outward: department/grade level professional communities; local, state, and national professional organizations. Now, let me emphasize here that cultivating communities of empowerment must not become an act of martyrdom (see above); I am not suggesting adding on to your professional commitment, but am arguing for re-evaluating your professional time so that you commit segments of time to more professionalism but less overall time to your work day.
- Create advocacy roles for yourself that suit your own strengths and comfort with advocacy. Many years ago while I was a co-leader for a local chapter of the National Writing Project, I mentored a beginning teacher who struggled with her administration over implementing best practice in teaching writing to her elementary students. These were tense times since the young teacher feared for her job, but believed the school mandates were ineffective and even harmful to her students’ learning. She regularly shared with her principal and colleagues the wealth of professional literature on the practices she chose over the mandates and gradually built a case for what she was doing with her students—even though parents also challenged her practice. No one model works for every teacher, and certainly some aspects of being political pose real dangers for K-12 teachers. Yet, change necessary for greater teacher professionalism and autonomy can result only from teachers who are advocates and political. From blogging and Twitter to participating in professional organizations to implementing practices in your classroom to use as models for change in your school—advocacy and being political are necessary for teacher professionalism.
- Expand your role as teacher beyond the classroom to parents, the community, and the public. We are teachers, but our power as teachers is not restricted to the classroom. One of the best avenues for helping change our profession is through building greater understanding and support among the parents of our students, the community we serve, and the wider public. Daily conversations outside school; regular newsletters to parents about best practice; letters to the editor or Op-Eds in local, state, and national forums; blogging and other social media dedicated to our work as professional teachers—these are ways in which we can teach beyond the walls of our classrooms.
- Check your practice and refuse to scapegoat anyone else for your practices. Ultimately, as educators, we must behave professionally, even as we are not treated as or allowed to be professional. Any practice we do is our decision to do. It is neither healthy nor professional to argue that others make us do anything. If any mandate is harmful to children, we cannot comply. Period. If we do comply, we are implying we, in fact, admit it does no harm. While there is no requirement that teachers are perfect, we must adopt the professionalism we want guaranteed us.
Daily teaching and working toward greater teacher autonomy and professionalism are all very hard work—exhausting and stressful.
The path to greater teacher professionalism is build by teachers dedicated to teaching as a professional endeavor. The suggestions above, I believe, are some powerful ways to make this happen while also not sacrificing any teacher along the way.
And so I return to Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” with my small edit: “A [teacher] has not everything to do, but something; and because [she/]he cannot do everything, it is not necessary that [she/]he should do something wrong.”
In my fourth decade as a teacher, I believe the suggestions above help all teachers achieve these wise words.
The rise of Trumpism and how to fight it, Dorian Bon
Even leaving aside the possibility of marauding, right-wing poll-watchers, other questions will have come up for readers of this website: Why is Donald Trump’s bigotry and aggressive chauvinism finding such a large audience? How can so many millions of people who don’t have millions in their bank accounts be planning to vote for him after everything we know?
More generally: Where is the momentum on the far right coming from? Where is it going? And what can be done to stop it?
Trump’s Inconvenient Racial Truth, Nikole Hannah-Jones
To be clear, I am not arguing that the man who called for the execution of the since-exonerated Central Park Five (and who still insists on their guilt) and who seeks nationwide implementation of the stop-and-frisk program ruled unconstitutional in New York City, and who warns that voting in heavily black cities is rigged, is a racial progressive who will enact policies that will help black communities. Nor am I saying black voters should buy what Trump is selling. (And they aren’t: A poll released last week by The New York Times Upshot/Siena College of likely voters in Pennsylvania found that “no black respondent from Philadelphia supported Mr. Trump in the survey.”)
What I am saying is that when Trump claims Democratic governance has failed black people, when he asks “the blacks” what they have to lose, he is asking a poorly stated version of a question that many black Americans have long asked themselves. What dividends, exactly, has their decades-long loyalty to the Democratic ticket paid them? By brushing Trump’s criticism off as merely cynical or clueless rantings, we are missing an opportunity to have a real discussion of the failures of progressivism and Democratic leadership when it comes to black Americans.
As researchers on positive school climate note, the “personality” of a school is an expression of how teachers, students, family members and community perceive the milieu.
In other words, a school doesn’t have to be mean to be good. Treating students with care and respect increases academic performance among students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, higher than if a school placed a singular single focus on academics.
Researchers for this study pulled evidence from multiple studies from around the world to understand the relationships between socioeconomic status, school climate, and academic achievement to help academics and practitioners alike understand what a positive climate is and why ultimately it can boost academic achievement.
Why I Have No Sympathy for Angry White Men, Stacey Patton
Why isn’t anyone suggesting that these beleaguered White men respond to their relatively new “hard times” by working hard and pulling themselves up by their bootstraps? Where are the people calling on these beleaguered Whites to develop empathy and compassion for those who have long been suffering, like African-Americans and other people of color? Why do we need to understand this community? Why is the opposite never suggested as a potential option? Is it because White men are simply not willing to emerge from their bubble and acknowledge the humanity of those they deem “other?” Or is it because they are unable to see beyond their own reality?
What we’re witnessing is racist populism all over again. Trump is following a historical pattern by stoking the racism, but especially as a rich White man pitting disenfranchised poor White people against Black people and especially Black people in low-income areas, telling them to intimidate and attack them at his rallies and at the polls, much in the same way poor Whites were pitted against poor Black people by elite White people to ensure there wouldn’t be a class uprising.
Butler: What Trump is emancipating is unbridled hatred and, as we see recently, forms of sexual action that don’t even care about anybody’s consent. Since when did we have to ask women whether they are okay with being touched, or why? He does not actually say that, but that is exactly what he is indicating. It liberates people, their rage, and their hatred. And these people may be wealthy, they may be poor, they may be in the middle; they feel themselves to have been repressed or censored by the left, by the feminists, by the movement for civil rights and equality, by Obama’s presidency, which allowed a black man to represent the nation.
Unthinkable Politics and the Dead Bodies of Children, Henry A. Giroux
Matters of power, state violence, extreme poverty, institutional racism, a broken criminal justice system, the school to prison pipeline and the existence of the mass incarceration state, among other important matters, rarely if ever enter her discourse and yet these are major issues negatively affecting the lives of millions of children in the United States. And her alleged regard for children falls apart in light of her hawkish policies on global regime change, drone attacks and cyber-warfare, and her unqualified support for the warfare state. Her alleged support for children abroad does not capture the larger reality they face from when their countries are invaded, attacked by drones and subject to contemporary forms of indiscriminate violence. Rather than critique the US as a powerful engine of violence, Clinton expands its imperialist role around the globe. This is a key point in light of her defense of the rights of children, because her warmongering ideology puts children in the path of lethal violence.